STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Two days after the University of Wisconsin football team lost to Ohio State in overtime, Badgers coach Bret Bielema was asked about his team’s inability to win close games.
I’m not sure who the questioner was, but Bielema chided the reporter for not checking the facts and noticing that the Badgers have won a lot of games by a touchdown or less, too.
But while that may have been true earlier in Bielema’s tenure, a growing body of evidence that suggests UW has developed a major problem closing out games. The latest example came Saturday, when the Badgers’ frustrating, so-close-yet-so-far-away season took another downward turn with a 24-21 overtime loss to fired-up Penn State at Beaver Stadium.
The Badgers gave their usual noble effort, but the loss was eerily similar to their first four defeats this season. Earlier, UW put itself in position to beat Oregon State, Nebraska, Michigan State and Ohio State but couldn’t close the deal. Including Penn State, the last three losses have been in overtime.
“It’s incredibly disappointing,” quarterback Curt Phillips said. “We’ve been in positions to win them and we just haven’t done it. We’ve got to figure out what this is that’s holding us back from finishing them and learn from it.”
Unfortunately, the time for learning is over. Due to NCAA sanctions at Penn State and Ohio State, UW qualified for next week’s Big Ten Conference title game in Indianapolis. The Badgers will take their 4-4 conference record to play a 7-1 Nebraska team that beat them by — you guessed it — three points two months ago.
Now, the task is clear-cut. If the Badgers want to win a third consecutive Big Ten title, they’ll have to break their cycle of losing close games to the better teams on their schedule.
A thorough check of UW’s fact book revealed that it has had a problem finishing for a while. Dating back to the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2010 season, the Badgers’ last nine losses have been by a touchdown or less. During that time, UW has won three close games, against non-conference foes Northern Iowa and Utah State at home this season and Michigan State in last year’s Big Ten title game.
What’s most disturbing about this season is the losses are following a distinct pattern. The Badgers start fast, though often the lead isn’t as big as it should be. Then they lose their mojo on offense, watch their defense wear down when the offense can’t run the ball effectively and eventually fall when they can’t make the necessary plays at the end.
Then it’s rinse and repeat.
“I don’t know what it is. I really don’t,” center Travis Frederick said. “Today we started well and we ended well, but we didn’t do a whole lot in the middle. It’s just a matter of being able to play four quarters and continuing to build the lead instead of getting a lead and kind of just sitting on it. We need to be able to continue to strike. And I don’t know what it is that’s causing us not to be able to do that, but there certainly is something.”
The first place people should look is the coach. Bielema’s late-game decisions have become a lightning rod for disgruntled fans, but there is so much more to UW’s problem than that. Still, Bielema sets the tone and, this year anyway, the Badgers have been conservative, often admittedly, on offense.
After so many close losses, it is fair to wonder if UW just isn’t good enough to beat good teams anymore. Bielema’s best explanation Saturday was that injuries are the reason UW can’t get over the hump in close games.
“We’re running out of guys that can just get it done in the fourth quarter and in overtime,” he said.
This much we do know: UW has been an error-prone team under Bielema. For a few years, it was special teams. Last year, it was breakdowns in pass coverage at critical times. This year, the quarterback position has held UW back.
The uncertainty and inexperience at the position — UW has started three different quarterbacks — has caused UW to call games conservatively. The coaches don’t seem to trust their quarterbacks’ ability or experience, so they seldom throw the ball down the field and run far too often on third down. Those things contribute to UW’s consistent inability to convert on third down.
UW was 5-for-16 on the money down against Penn State, leading to punts on eight consecutive possessions after they took a 14-7 lead. Penn State, like other teams before it, loaded up against the run and dared UW to throw, something it couldn’t do consistently.
Now, the Badgers will get one more chance to prove that winning close games isn’t a problem.
“The way this year has set up, it’s kind of eerie that we’re going to get another chance at one of those close games,” Frederick said. “We’ve lost these close games and maybe next week is a chance for our redemption, a chance to justify that we can play in those games.”
Yes, it’s a chance. But it’s a last chance.
Contact Tom Oates at email@example.com or 608-252-6172.